I had a conversation today with a student about class rank, and the detrimental effects she’s felt as a result. I won’t go into details here due to privacy for her concerns, but it made me once again wonder what we are doing to children in our high schools in this country.
We’ve created a high school to college system that too often reinforces the idea that numbers are more important than learning; that scores are more important than wisdom and knowledge; and that stress and overwork are valued qualities and a way of life that our students should aspire to.
We fret about students who are only concerned about their grades or class rank (or some parents who are), but we also have systems that place the highest values on those things. There’s a legitimate reason that they have these concerns. So, I think we need to truly ask ourselves as campuses, what end do we have in mind? What do we want our students to learn about learning?
In his book The Passionate Learner, Robert L. Fried reminds us that “every child is a passionate learner. Children come into the world with a desire to learn that is as natural as the desire to eat and move and be loved. . . .”
He asks: “So what has happened for so many children, along the way, to transform the joy of learning that every toddler displays into the resistance and ennui we see too often in the classroom?”
While his book points out the complex issues behind this question, I also wonder if we lose too much of the joy of learning in high schools in the pursuit of achievement records, not achievement in “learning”?
Fried reminds us:
“William Butler Yeats, who was a school official as well as a poet, admonishes us that ‘education is not about filling a pail, it’s about lighting a fire.’ In a world where standards of pail filling seem to have overwhelmed efforts at fire lighting, Yeat’s injunction burns.”
How can we find ways to light that fire? How can we reevaluate our systems so that they reinforce the importance of students as learners, not performers? How can we re-envision our classrooms so that the end we have in mind is learning, not test results, when some of those tests (standardized tests, AP tests) drive us to emphasize facts, rather than wisdom? This is something teachers struggle with every day, from campuses like ours in Texas to campuses in South Korea, where Clay Burell bemoans the focus of AP students in his own classes.
But we are the educators, and we do have the opportunity and I think the responsibility to our students to have these conversations on our campuses, with our students, our principals and parents, and with those outside of our campus like legislators or College Board. We have the responsibility to speak up for children.
As Fried concludes,
“Let us adjust to and accommodate ‘the way things are’ in other matters if we must, but not in advocating for the right of every child to be cherished as a passionate learner. . . . Let us. . .vow first to do no harm, and promise to resist measures that deprive children of their natural enthusiasm and exuberance as learners, their impulse to ask questions, to figure things out, to wonder, to express, to investigate, to construct, to imagine.”
Don’t we have that responsibility to model a different possibility for our students? Don’t we owe that to them?